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Better journalism is key to better public health

Most people who read health journalism with a critical eye would say it's in bad shape. For evidence, look no further than your local newspaper (if one still exists), or go to your favorite website and learn about "the 10 ways to bust your belly fat for good." Coffee will help you live longer on Monday and kill you quicker by the weekend.

It is often assumed that this state of affairs is linked to the collapse of media as we knew it. Gone are the days when science desks were staples of newsrooms and journalists had time to read the studies that they reported on or call their best sources. Those pseudoscientific examples of health journalism, the argument goes, are nothing more than side effects of a traditional media that has fallen ill. The oft-cited causes of the disease: digital upheaval, a decline in advertising revenue, and the death knell of global financial crisis.

The news business can be gloomy, but the prognosis for health reporting matters for three reasons. First, people barely follow their doctor's prescriptions, yet they will bet their health and dollars on whatever miracle cure is being promoted in the media. This is as true for Dr. Oz's weight loss wonders in America as it is for cricket players who promote the polio vaccine in Pakistan.

Second, decisionmakers, like politicians, policymakers, and even doctors, rely on journalists to tell them what's new and important in the world of medicine and health research. When journalists get it wrong, their work can have a harmful, reverberating impact.

Third, health care is a business like any other, and it needs to be kept accountable. The fourth estate, it should be clear by now, is not only a pillar of a functioning democracy; it's a pillar of public health.

We need to publish with the care and deliberateness of a doctor writing a prescription

Still, the idea that health journalism is at its end stages is no longer true. We are in the midst of a journalism revolution, and if harnessed for public health, the press can have a greater positive impact than ever before. Web-based publications can use the endless space afforded by the internet to explain the news in a more nuanced and research-driven manner than print media — with its limited real estate — ever could. Stories link back to primary sources and studies so that readers can immediately verify or follow up as part of their news-consuming experience.

At Vox, we link news updates in storystreams so audiences can see how reporting developed over time. Card stacks help answer readers' most basic questions so they have more entry points to important stories. We are no longer confined by the limits of daily print deadlines; instead, we post quickly and develop our coverage as we learn more. When you think about online news this way, anxieties about too much speed and reactivity dissipate. Instead, journalists can now report the news and new research as they were meant to — in an iterative and contextualized manner that actually reflects current events and science as they evolve.

The digital revolution in media has also given rise to a cadre of science-oriented blogs like Retraction WatchScience-Based Medicine, and Bad Science. They publish more frequently than traditional beat reporters, correcting the record, illuminating health research, and holding opinion leaders or decisionmakers to account. In addition to speaking directly to their sizable audiences, their work is picked up by mainstream media or they are called upon as sources, elevating the discourse about science along the way.

Many of these bloggers came from academia and  in the past would have never had a voice beyond the Ivory Tower. Now they do, as the gap between research and journalism shrinks.

This new direction includes reporting on and using "big data" for journalism. Every day, the amount of data we produce grows, and journalists have more at their disposal to learn about themselves and the world. We can also measure the scope and impact of our work more easily and precisely than ever. We can quantify which health topics we reported on, which ones we ignored, and how that compares with other important factors such as public investment in research and disease burden.

With potential come pitfalls. More information means more bad information. Big data cannot replace old-fashioned journalistic inquiry. But in this time of media transition, health journalists need to keep their eyes on the possibilities. We need to remember that, whether we like it or not, our stories are often used as medicine by readers. We need to publish with the care and deliberateness of a doctor writing a prescription, and use all the new tools at our disposal to make sure it's a prescription that will actually help. Billions of people are counting on us.

Reprinted from To Save Humanity: What Matters Most for a Healthy Future edited by Julio Frenk and Steven J. Hoffman, with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.  Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press.

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